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Why Is Russia Trading Warplanes for Beef?

You don't often see major powers bartering food staples for weapons systems, but the recent move by Vladimir Putin is actually a savvy bit of strategic thinking.

Over the weekend, Russia decided to swap a dozen all-weather, supersonic, laser-guided attack aircraft for a load of Argentine beef and wheat.

The deal, in the works since Russian President Vladimir Putin's July visit to Buenos Aires, is not the first such exchange between the nations. Argentina, which has long sought to upgrade its air force, received two Russian Mi17 assault helicopters in 2010. The latest trade is not exactly going to revolutionize Argentina's military, either, as the 12 Sukhoi Su-24 "Fencers" are aging craft. Yet the deal is noteworthy in part because you don't often see major powers bartering staples for weapons systems, and also because some observers expect the new fleet to be used to patrol and pressure the British-held, Argentine-claimed Falkland Islands—just as a series of provocations have raised tensions and UK defense cuts have left it vulnerable.

Nations do sometimes trade food for firearms, but these exchanges are typically internal and focused on disarming militants or criminals. Russia's decision to put weapons in people's hands across the globe in exchange for food reflects its need to reestablish food security and build new non-European partnerships all while dealing with its flagging economy and widespread embargoes.

Following a series of mutual embargoes on major foodstuffs between Russia and Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway, and the United States, consumer prices in Russia have soared, especially for staple goods. 2014 has seen a 25 percent increase in food costs, while prices for the country's signature staple, buckwheat, increased by 65 percent. And these prices only seem set to rise at increasing rates as the national currency falters. Although we're not about to get a repeat of Soviet-era breadlines, Russians have reportedly begun hoarding buckwheat preemptively, demonstrating doubt in the Kremlin's ability to provide food security.

Almost as soon as the embargoes went into place this summer, Latin America nations stepped in to fill the void, massively increasing their food exports to Russia. A storied history in the region of governments exchanging food for oil and industrial goods means that powers like Argentina have few qualms about working with the Russians.

A year ago, Russia might have leaned on its oil exports in this sort of trade. But as oil prices plummet, Putin and friends seem to be turning towards a reliance on their weapons sector. Russia's arms sales have increased by 20 percent over the past year—while sales in the rest of the world decreased—and they now possess ten of the top 100 weapons export firms in the world. This weekend, Putin also pledged $108 million in support for these exporters over the next two years. Between these increases in weapons production and dissemination, the Argentine deal, and Russia's history of flexible terms for arms sales, it seems likely that Moscow will enact more food-for-firearms deals in the near future, especially in Latin America.

In the process of bolstering food security and cementing ties with Latin America, the Russians have given the Brits a bit of a black eye by stoking the cold conflict over the Falkland Islands, a small chain near Argentina composed of 3,000 people who are mostly self-supporting sheepherders. Argentina and Britain have disputed ownership of the territory for over a century, leading to a thwarted Argentine invasion in 1982 that left hundreds dead on each side and flecks of minefields across the islands. Spurred by the recent discovery and development of oil off the islands and a 2013 referendum (deemed irrelevant and invalid by Argentina), in which all but three Falkland voters chose to remain part of the UK, the past year saw increasingly hostile posturing over the strategic South Atlantic bastion.

Back in the spring, Argentina denounced British military drills in the Falklands as a provocation on usurped territory, then started the fall with a failed bid at procuring 24 Saab Gripen fighter-bombers as part of a Brazil-Sweden deal. In November, Argentine lawmakers snuck an addendum into a public transit reform bill requiring all public vehicles in the country to bear a sign stating "Las Malvinas son Argentinas,"— The Falkland Islands are Argentine. And earlier this month, an Argentine diplomat gave the (Argentine) Pope a book on the nation's claim to the islands as a Christmas gift and used America's Cuban concessions as leverage to try to nudge the British toward the negotiating table.

The British, in turn, closed out this year by awarding the entire island chain the South Atlantic Medal in recognition of the Islanders' fight for self-recognition. They also announced that on January 10, they will unveil a $62,000 bronze statue of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who led the British in their 1982 defense of the islands. The statue will be centrally located and placed under constant video surveillance against any Argentine or pro-separatist defacement.

This resurgent sniping over the islands comes during a window of British weakness. Although the UK hopes to deploy a massive new aircraft carrier to the region in 2020, recent budget cuts have reduced regional defenses to a half-dozen old typhoon fighter jets and surface-to-air missile batteries, some visiting warships, and just over a thousand troops. Although no one's really worried about a repeat of 1982, Argentina's bullish stance on the islands suggests its leaders may take provocative actions with their spiffy new(ish) Russian planes. If nothing else, it's hard to believe that possibility didn't factor into Moscow's decision to provide the jets in exchange for food.

It's tempting to interpret Russia selling off old jets for some slabs of beef as an act of desperation, but this may actually be a sign of dastardly genius. The Soviet legacy has left Putin with excess killing machines and a thriving defense industry, and the wily bear is well aware that the West has been neglecting whole swaths of the world—like Latin America—whose leaders are unimpressed by European bluster and eager to unload their commodities for Russia's special wares. In one fluid motion, Putin has managed to shed old equipment, bolster food security, tamp down his economic woes, create problems for his enemies without lifting its own fists, and even make useful new friends along the way. Whether or not you agree with his actions, this is savvy stuff, and doubtless pretty damn frustrating for the Western politicians trying to put the squeeze on the Kremlin.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.